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Full interview: Northfield Academy head on troubled school’s ‘forward momentum’

We addressed YOUR concerns in a wide-ranging interview with Northfield Academy head teacher Craig McDermott.
Calum Petrie
Craig McDermott in conversation with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
Craig McDermott in conversation with The P&J's Calum Petrie. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Northfield Academy in Aberdeen has had its troubles in recent years, but head teacher Craig McDermott said the school is now on a “positive trajectory.”

Mr McDermott became acting head teacher after the October holidays last year, and was made permanent head in March.

Originally a music teacher, he has previously worked at city schools such as Torry Academy and St Machar Academy. Most recently, he was head teacher for additional support needs (ASN) and outreach across Aberdeen.

He was also part of the ‘tactical team’ which was set up to help make improvements at Northfield Academy.

Remarkably, Mr McDermott still finds time to act as musical director of local amateur dramatics, which he has been involved with for more than 15 years. This includes the Attic Panto, which puts on shows at the Tivoli every year.

From bottom of the class to a ‘clear direction for improvement’

Craig McDermott was made permanent head teacher at Northfield Academy in March, having been acting head since October 2023. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

After an inspection in early 2023, Northfield Academy was given the lowest grade, ‘unsatisfactory’, in all four areas of assessment.

Such was the damning nature of the resulting report, which came out in March 2023, Aberdeen City Council called on the Scottish Government to intervene.

However, Education Scotland said in a letter published this week – following a further visit to the school by inspectors two months ago – that Northfield Academy “has made progress since the original inspection”.

Mr McDermott was praised for providing “clear direction for school improvement”, with the letter adding that he is “highly regarded by staff and young people.”

The letter said staff and parents feel valued, and that there had been “significant improvements in school culture.”

Northfield Academy. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

In addition, it pointed to an “increasing majority” of pupils saying they felt safe in school.

The negatives included continuing concerns around bullying, and behaviour in corridors. Poor attainment and attendance – with “too many” pupils walking out of class – were also highlighted.

Steps have been taken to improve attainment however, with the letter noting “greater rigour and accuracy around literacy and numeracy levels in S1 to S3.”

All in all, a good time to sit down for a catch up with the head teacher of a school that has often been in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Eight months into his tenure, we sat down with Mr McDermott for an exclusive interview. He told us about:

  • The “forward momentum” at Northfield Academy
  • Being “proactive” in tackling classroom violence
  • Being on the council’s ‘tactical team’, set up to turn the school’s fortunes around
  • The “fantastic” youngsters
  • His thoughts on press coverage of Northfield Academy
  • The future of the school

How have you settled in to Northfield Academy?

“I’ve really enjoyed it, absolutely love it. It’s a proper community school, with a real strong sense of community about it.”

Craig McDermott. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The inspection report last year gave Northfield Academy the lowest “unsatisfactory” grade in all four areas of its assessment. Education Scotland published a letter today, following inspectors’ visit to the school in March. What are your thoughts on the letter?

“I’m really pleased that it recognises the positives and the forward momentum.

“Particularly around things like culture, because I think culture is so important to a school, in terms of laying the foundations for improving the things that have been highlighted like attendance and attainment.

“So overall, really pleased that those positive things have been picked up.”

Northfield Academy has had its problems over recent years, hitting the headlines for poor inspection reports, poor attainment, bullying, and more than anything, the level of violence at the school. What progress has been made, and how big an issue is violence at Northfield Academy today?

“The main thing with bullying is that we would encourage any young person, if they perceive that they have experienced bullying, to come forward, to speak to adults. So that we can address it to the very best of our ability, working with them and working with parents and families.

“The more we understand about what might lie behind that, root causes, the more we can do to educate around that through things like our Personal and Social Education (PSE) curriculum.

“So moving from being reactive to proactive with things like bullying.”

Instances of classroom violence are low, Northfield Academy head teacher Craig McDermott told The P&J. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

But how big an issue is violence at the school? Many of the headlines around Northfield Academy have involved violence. What can you say to reassure parents who think Northfield Academy has a problem with classroom violence?

“In terms of classroom violence, instances are low.

“And ultimately even when something like that happens, there are policies and procedures in place to support and deal with that.

“But for me, it again comes back to being proactive, and understanding why these things happen in the first place.

“Understanding triggers, and making sure we do all we can to equip the environment, our approach to learning and teaching, our approach to wellbeing, so that we’re doing all we can as a school to be proactive and mitigate as much as possible.”

You’ve been here for eight months. Have you noticed an improvement, as far as classroom violence is concerned?

“I would stand by the fact that, as a school community, instances of classroom-based violence are low.”

You were part of the ‘tactical team’ which was set up to help make improvements at Northfield Academy. What lessons have been learned?

“That was a really rigorous process.

“The skillset across the team was really utilised to put robust plans in place, based on what we knew at the time.

“It was all done with the best of intentions – supporting the community, supporting the school, and putting plans in place to enable the school to move forward.

“Some of that you can see noted in that letter from Education Scotland, progress around systems and structures, the S1 Crew model. That stems from that work that’s being ongoing for a period of time.”

Northfield Academy head teacher Craig McDermott. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The Education Scotland letter says there has been “significant improvements in school culture.” That must be pleasing?

“Yes it is.

“For young people, the culture is about the environment they’re learning in.

“For staff, it’s about the culture and the ethos that they’re working in.

“And actually, the better the culture can be for everybody, the more conducive it is to then improving things that are highlighted in the letter, such as attendance and attainment.

“Same for parents – the better the culture is, the more parents feel able to approach the school and feel part of it. The same goes for all the partners we work alongside as well.”

The letter lists a number of positive aspects and improvements. How much work has that involved?

“Well, I won’t downplay it, it takes a lot of work.

“But it’s testament to the work that’s taken place across the school. The staff are exceptionally dedicated, they want the very best for the young people.

“And culture’s about everybody. It’s not about any one person. And it’s about listening, taking on board, and then responding. Which is very much the way I’ve set about things from the outset.”

Mr McDermott said he was pleased Education Scotland had recognised the progress the school has made. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Are the press too hard on Northfield Academy? Are there positive aspects of the school that people perhaps don’t hear about?

“Yes. The young people are fantastic. The community is brilliant. The staff, as I’ve said, are dedicated and committed to improving outcomes.

“Yes, we recognise that some have a way to go. But some are already starting to move in the right direction.

“That’s thanks to work that’s taken place over a number of years.

“And I would openly say that I don’t think that’s always portrayed as it should be, and recognised.”

Are we in the press guilty of focusing too much on the negatives when it comes to Northfield Academy?

“I wouldn’t want to tar anyone with a brush, and say ‘yes, you’re doing this,’ ‘no, you’re doing that.’

“Ultimately, I feel that as a school community we’ve got a lot of positives. Fantastic young people, fantastic families, and a great staff team.”

‘We’re starting to move in the right direction.’ Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

What about attainment? Northfield Academy came third from bottom in Aberdeen in our school league tables. The percentage of leavers gaining five Highers is only 22%.

“I’m going to keep my own personal view of league tables out of it.

“What I want here is attainment and achievement reflecting what’s best for the young people.

“We recognise measures do need to improve. Though naturally, because we work in cycles, and by that I mean exam results, attainment is often the last thing you see moving.

“During the visit by Education Scotland, we were able to highlight areas that have started to show that we’re on the right track, that we’re on that positive trajectory.

“So I’m confident that over time, those other measures will start to shift.”

Improving attainment and attendance remains on Mr McDermott’s ‘to do’ list. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

When you first came into the job, you would have been aware of the negative headlines around Northfield Academy. Was that overwhelming? What was going through your head as you took the reins?

“Because of my involvement with the tactical team, I already had a reasonable understanding of the school, having worked alongside the previous head teacher as part of that team. I’d read the inspection report as well.

“I recognised that there are aspects that we need to continue to improve, but I also knew that, behind that, were the people – and by that I mean the young people, the staff, the families, etcetera – that in education you need to be able to make that improvement.

“Knowing that was a hugely important thing for me.”

Craig McDermott. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

How confident are you that the school has a bright future? What would your message to parents be?

“I’m saying the same thing over and over again, but it’s because I truly believe it.

“The young people are fantastic. It is a community school, in the community, for the community, with a dedicated staff team.

“Therefore for me, you’ve got the key ingredients you need for a school to have that bright future.

“Notwithstanding that some of the measures we’ve spoken about today, such as attainment and attendance, they can take time to move, but I’m absolutely confident that we’re in a position where they can.”

Do you ever think about where Northfield Academy will be in, say, five years’ time?

“Yes, I mean I think that’s a key part of my job, to be able to project that.

“You have to be able to live in the day-to-day while also planning for a year, three years’, five years’ time, in order to make sure that we’re going to make those gains on things like attainment and attendance.

“But I’m confident about the future.”

Northfield Academy has the ‘key ingredients’ for a bright future, said Mr McDermott. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Check out our most recent head teacher interviews at Kemnay Academy and Peterhead Academy.